Release Date: March 10, 2015
Publisher: Dutton BFYR
Age Group: Young Adult
Buy: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / IndieBound
Skillfully blending multiple story strands that transcend time and place, award-winning Grasshopper Jungle author Andrew Smith chronicles the story of Ariel, a refugee who is the sole survivor of an attack on his small village. Now living with an adoptive family in Sunday, West Virginia, Ariel's story is juxtaposed against those of a schizophrenic bomber and the diaries of a failed arctic expedition from the late nineteenth century . . . and a depressed, bionic reincarnated crow.
With its insane plot, well-drawn characters, and wholly unique narrative style, Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle was my favorite novel of 2014. Both Grasshopper Jungle and Winger are rock solid offerings from a delightful, off-kilter author, so my expectations for The Alex Crow were understandably high. Unfortunately, the strengths of both Grasshopper Jungle and Winger are weaknesses in The Alex Crow, which feels like a half-hearted and half-baked Andrew Smith effort.
Winger and Grasshopper Jungle are both grounded in exceptional character work that shines on every level, whether it be distinctive characters, realistic relationships, or compelling interpersonal conflicts. There are very brief shades of that in The Alex Crow, particularly about two thirds of the way through when Ariel’s experiences in a refugee camp are recounted. Aside from a few momentary high points, though, the characters lack any discernible conflict, resolution, or personality. Most characters are little more than a plot mechanism. The best example is Ariel’s adoptive brother, Max. Max’s only defining characteristic is his admittedly amusing ability to spout off an unlimited number of euphemisms for masturbation. He vaguely resents Ariel and their entire character conflict is first addressed and resolved with a single hug, after which their interactions remain basically unchanged. There is some subtle stuff with Ariel moving from virtually silent to talkative later on, but it feels more like a way to get the plot rolling than any sort of character growth.
The plot is similarly unfulfilling in that there doesn’t seem to be very much of one. There are a lot of threads, half-mysteries, and slick misdirections, but in the end it boils down to a whole lot of not much. The shame is that the threads floating around could coalesce into a really interesting novel, but it almost feels like Smith doesn’t want to betray the conceit of (almost) everything happening at summer camp. We have to sit through an annoying number of pages following a crazy guy driving across country and another plot about a ship named the Alex Crow that only tangentially relate to our main characters. They do tell the story of the creation and experiments of a secretive science department named Alex Division, but the story of Alex Division feels divorced from that of the main characters, even though the two do briefly intersect. The kids feel entirely superfluous to the story of Alex Division; the actual reason the kids are important to Alex Division’s plans are so mundane and ultimately unnecessary that connecting the two bores rather than excites. The book feels like it either should have been full on about Alex Division or left open the question of whether it exists, what it does, and whether or not any of the strange stuff that might be happening actually did. While it was nice to read a young adult sci-fi novel where the main characters aren’t some sort of legendarily competent renegade or hero whose job it is to take down the adults’ crazy schemes, I also would have preferred a little more to their story than smoking weed and dealing with a crappy camp counselor.
Even the style seems a little not-Andrew-Smith. There’s the normal irreverence and willingness to address subjects like sex, drugs, and alcohol; however the book lacks the pop and energy of Smith’s previous work. Where Grasshopper Jungle and Winger felt focused and streamlined, The Alex Crow feels fat around the edges, like Smith isn’t quite sure what he wants the novel to be. Luckily, that doesn’t stop the novel from being a quick, smooth, and occasionally funny read.
With all of that said, I did read the novel is essentially one sitting and was having a great time up through about the last fifty pages. I don’t have complaints about what’s there so much as what isn’t. The whole novel feels like it’s the first two-thirds of a novel, like the plot twist that brings everything into focus and satisfying resolution is sitting there five pages after the end, just taunting the reader. Instead, we just get this vague conflict between adults that ends up not even actually mattering and kids whose role in the big conflict matter even less. It just feels like there’s 50-100 more pages to the story than we got. The whole thing feels like it wasn’t quite finished, from the character arcs to the plot to the style. It’s not bad so much as a quick, amusing piece of completely forgettable, pointless fluff.